HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — In international basketball, there’s a thin line between dominance and heartbreak.
In the FIBA Americas tournament, Canada was, by far, the best team through eight games. But in the semifinals, with an Olympic bid on the line, the Canadians blew a seven-point lead with less than three minutes to go and saw a huge opportunity slip away.
At Eurobasket, the two best teams through Wednesday were France and Serbia. But on Thursday, France lost in brutal fashion to Spain. And on Friday, it was Serbia’s turn to come up short.
Lithuania is heading to the Olympics after holding on for a 67-64 victory over the team that had won its first seven games by an average of 15.1 points. It wasn’t a pretty game (the teams combined to shoot 8-for-42 from 3-point range), but appropriately, it went down to the wire.
Lithuania beat up Serbia inside early and built a double-digit lead in the second quarter. Serbia climbed to within one at the half, but scored just nine points in the third quarter and trailed by nine early in the fourth.
Serbia came back again, but fell victim to two tough plays late. With 3:36 left, Stefan Markovic saved the ball under the Lithuania basket … right to Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who put Lithuania up four. Two possessions later, Bogdan Bogdanovic was called for a foul on what looked like a clean block, and Jonas Maciulis put Lithuania up six at the free throw line.
Milos Teodosic put Serbia within one with a ridiculous three with 14 seconds left, but Bogdanovic was bumped and stumbled as he tried to tie the game on a frantic drive after Lithuania missed one of two at the line.
The Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas led Lithuania with 15 points (on just six shots) in less than 27 minutes. Teodosic had 16 for Serbia, but didn’t get enough help from Bogdanovic or the Wolves’ Nemanja Bjelica.
Lithuania punched its ticket to Rio and to Sunday’s gold medal game against Spain. Serbia will play France for bronze on Sunday and will have another chance at the Olympics in one of the qualifying tournaments next July.
Earlier on Friday, the Czech Republic blew out Latvia to finish seventh and earn a bid to one of the qualifying tournaments. Wizards draft pick Tomas Satoransky averaged 14.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 7.3 assists for the Czechs, who emerged as a decent, second-tier team in Europe.
With Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Italy, Serbia and Mexico, competition for the final three spots in the Olympics will be tough. Those tournaments will be played next July. Teams that are in the field already can bid to host them, but the three wildcard selections could also host them.
Germany could be a wildcard candidate, giving Dirk Nowitzki another chance to represent his country.